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The Fishing Sparrow

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Last year, my wife Sue and I completed a 10-year survey of the Golden Eagle populations in a huge area of Central and Eastern Oregon. Throughout the survey Sue told me again and again, "Let's wait a little longer," when we came to a nest site with apparently nothing going on.

A Northwestern Song Sparrow, Melospiz melodia, searches for aquatic prey. - CREDIT JIM ANDERSON
  • Credit Jim Anderson
  • A Northwestern Song Sparrow, Melospiz melodia, searches for aquatic prey.

Sure enough, sometimes it would take an hour, but in time the head of a baby eagle would often slowly rise out of the empty-looking nest, or the feathers of an incubating eagle's wing would come into view.

Well, waiting is a wonderful discipline to use even when you're just watching little birds, as in "Bird-Watching," or the term used most today, "Birding."

"Birding" has been a part of my life since the mid '30s when I lived on my grandfather's farm in West Haven, Connecticut. And it won't ever not be until I go out among the stars. But even at that, being close to Nature will still be a part of my life—and death.

When my dear pals, Brent McGregor and Kara Mickaelson built my beautiful pine coffin, they made sure the lid would be loose so the critters could come and feast on my old body. This poem by Harley Poe, (which I infamously edited) says it better than I can:

Did ya' ever think
When the hearse goes by
That some sweet day you're gonna die?
They'll put you in an old pine box
And cover you over with soil and rocks
Well, all goes well for about a week
And then the box begins to creak
The bugs crawl out, the bugs crawl in
And the worms play pinochle on your chin...

Well, having that deep desire to be close to nature really paid off the other day. Sue and I were parked in our old 4-Runner having lunch at a small, shallow spring-fed pond in the Coyote Unit of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Fern Ridge Reservoir near Eugene. Marsh wrens, thousands of cacklers, many raptors and other birds are plentiful there, along with one of our favorites singers, the Northwestern song sparrow.

I became my usual restless self and I wanted to get going after eating our lunch, but Sue convinced me to sit tight and watch, so we did. Then, without warning, a male Song sparrow appeared in a shrub above the pond, singing its beautiful head off.

If you're a music lover as I am, you can't help but thrill at the talents of Song sparrows. One of their songs in their beautiful repertoire has beginning notes that sound just like the opening four notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. Can't beat that with a stick!

So there I was enjoying the beautiful talents of that musical genius, when it suddenly dropped off the limb it was perched on and not only stepped into the shallow water, but ducked its head underwater and came up holding some kind of critter.

I sat open-mouthed and watched as it crunched up the grey object and then with the finesse of a juggler, flipped it over to show yellow on the animal's body, and swallowed it.

"Sue!" I exclaimed, "have you ever seen a Song sparrow eating things it has caught in the water?"

She hadn't and neither had I.

So, old "Let's get moving!" Jim spent the next hour sitting there watching that talented sparrow as it snatched those grey things from the shallow pond, crunched them up and then, with that artful flourish, spun them 'round in its beak to show the critter's yellow bottom, and swallowed 'em down.

When we got home I dove right into everything I could find about the natural history of Song sparrows, and sure enough, as I pursued the data from Wikipedia there was the comment: "These birds forage on the ground, in shrubs or in very shallow water." Leave it to Wikipedia to provide data you need.

Then to make this sparrow story even more fun, Sue was serenaded by a number of them last week while pulling nails on some old lumber. The birds decided to sing for her and flitted within reach of her hammer, scurrying around the boards looking for spiders and moth cocoons. What a way to spend the day pulling nails!

So, the next time you go into Song sparrow country, please don't be in a hurry. Sit, listen to their beautiful music and watch them as they go about their daily business; you may witness something new about them. Perhaps a male will surprise you with a Mozart sonata.

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